Ghosts of corruption past

In 2007, General Pervez Musharraf, then-president of Pakistan, made a deal with the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto: the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which paved the way for thousands politicians and bureaucrats to get amnesty for cases between Jan. 1, 1986, and Oct. 12, 1999 involving everything from murder to corruption. The beneficiaries of the ...

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, General Pervez Musharraf, then-president of Pakistan, made a deal with the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto: the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which paved the way for thousands politicians and bureaucrats to get amnesty for cases between Jan. 1, 1986, and Oct. 12, 1999 involving everything from murder to corruption. The beneficiaries of the ordinance included Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan. Thanks to that law, pending cases against the two were dropped, and Bhutto returned back to Pakistan in October of 2007, knowing she wouldn't have to face the courts. The NRO was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but before a verdict could be passed on the legislation, Musharraf imposed a "state of emergency" in the country and sacked the country's top judges. Bhutto was assassinated two months after her return.

Fast forward two years later: Following the reinstatement of the country's top judges, including the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the NRO was declared unconstitutional by the court, and top officials at the country's anti-corruption body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), were asked to reopen all the cases that were pending before the NRO was instituted. So, in plain English, any case that any politician was facing that was instituted in between 1986 to 1999 had to be reopened. And it was on Monday that the Supreme Court told the top anti-corruption official that he was in contempt of court for not implementing the NRO's verdict. Following a 24-hour deadline, the NAB chairman announced that the anti-corruption body had asked the Swiss government to reopen the cases against Asif Zardari. Following this development, on Thursday the Supreme Court objected to NAB's letter and asked the Law Ministry to send the letter to the Swiss authorities after the Prime Minister's approval.

However, under the Constitution of Pakistan, the President is immune from prosecution while in office. And even though Zardari was never convicted in any case in Pakistan, had the NRO not been in place at the time of his election to the office of president in 2008, he would have been facing charges of corruption in various courts.

In 2007, General Pervez Musharraf, then-president of Pakistan, made a deal with the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto: the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which paved the way for thousands politicians and bureaucrats to get amnesty for cases between Jan. 1, 1986, and Oct. 12, 1999 involving everything from murder to corruption. The beneficiaries of the ordinance included Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan. Thanks to that law, pending cases against the two were dropped, and Bhutto returned back to Pakistan in October of 2007, knowing she wouldn’t have to face the courts. The NRO was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but before a verdict could be passed on the legislation, Musharraf imposed a "state of emergency" in the country and sacked the country’s top judges. Bhutto was assassinated two months after her return.

Fast forward two years later: Following the reinstatement of the country’s top judges, including the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the NRO was declared unconstitutional by the court, and top officials at the country’s anti-corruption body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), were asked to reopen all the cases that were pending before the NRO was instituted. So, in plain English, any case that any politician was facing that was instituted in between 1986 to 1999 had to be reopened. And it was on Monday that the Supreme Court told the top anti-corruption official that he was in contempt of court for not implementing the NRO’s verdict. Following a 24-hour deadline, the NAB chairman announced that the anti-corruption body had asked the Swiss government to reopen the cases against Asif Zardari. Following this development, on Thursday the Supreme Court objected to NAB’s letter and asked the Law Ministry to send the letter to the Swiss authorities after the Prime Minister’s approval.

However, under the Constitution of Pakistan, the President is immune from prosecution while in office. And even though Zardari was never convicted in any case in Pakistan, had the NRO not been in place at the time of his election to the office of president in 2008, he would have been facing charges of corruption in various courts.

According to Dawn, "Both Asif Zardari and Benazir Bhutto were convicted by a Geneva court in 2003 of laundering $13 million linked to kickbacks. But that verdict was overturned on appeal. Swiss judicial authorities in August 2008 said they had closed the money-laundering case against Zardari and had released $60 million frozen in Swiss accounts for a decade after Pakistan dropped out of all cases it had initiated there."

In a phone interview, former Pakistani Supreme Court justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim said that re-opening the Swiss cases would not make any difference to the legality of the president. "The qualification or disqualification of a candidate is raised at the time of the filing of nomination papers. Later on if a person gets convicted, that’s a separate issue." Ebrahim also says that one must remember that a Pakistani court has so far not convicted Zardari.

"Regarding the Swiss cases, there was a case that was withdrawn by us from the Swiss court after the NRO was promulgated. Now, with the SC verdict on the NRO, the NAB has sent a letter to the Swiss government that says, ‘we sent you a letter asking you to withdraw the case in 2007, please withdraw that letter.’ Now, it is up to the Swiss government to decide whether to re-open the proceedings or not. Also, many countries recognize the immunity of the office of president, but I am not sure whether that is the case in Switzerland as well. But I think that as far as the President is concerned, he continues to have absolute immunity," says Ebrahim.

And Geneva Prosecutor-General Daniel Zappelli is concerned about Zardari’s presidential immunity as well, telling Reuters, "Immunity is the key question. We can’t prosecute Mr. Zardari while he has immunity unless Pakistan lifts that immunity. And if he doesn’t have immunity, why don’t they try him in Pakistan?"

In another twist to the story, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court dismissed Additional Director General for the FIA — the Pakistani equivalent of the FBI –Ahmed Riaz Sheikh’s appeal against his conviction by the accountability courts, which was revived after the NRO was struck down as a law, and as television cameras rolled on, Sheikh was arrested by the police and sent to jail. Sheikh was a close ally of President Zardari and Interior Minister Rehman Malik.

When asked about a reaction from the presidency on the court proceedings, in a phone interview the president’s spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani said, "The president enjoys immunity under the Constitution of Pakistan."

Despite the confusion surrounding the NAB and NRO judgment, from the looks of it, until he resigns or is forced to step down as president, Zardari will not face proceedings. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has asked that the letter asking for the re-opening of the cases be sent off at once. What has come to light recently though is the blame game: the Attorney General of Pakistan Anwar Mansoor accused the law minister Babar Awan (also a member of the PPP, Zardari’s party) of creating hurdles in reopening of the cases, which Awan denied.

Pakistan has seen the Constitution flouted and the laws of the land violated so many times that even a simple order to implement a Supreme Court decision is front page news. But it’s heartening to see in this episode of the soap opera that is Pakistani politics is that the National Accountability Board is being taken to task and its leader, Naveed Ahsan, forced to implement a decision that would negatively impact his ally, Zardari: and that no one, not even the Pakistani government’s official anti-corruption body, can be greater than the law.

At the end of the day, Zardari’s critics can cry themselves hoarse about the corruption cases, and the Pakistan People’s Party can insist the cases were politically motivated, but despite Zardari trying to reform his image in the last few years, the ghost of Swiss cases past continues to haunt the President more than a decade later.

Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.